Twinning Compassion and Murder: On the Question of Motherhood in ‘Shubho Mahurot’
By Aparajita De
Rituparno Ghosh’s oeuvre has never failed to garner critical acclaim and controversy as an auteur of repute. After his untimely death in 2013, the topography of the Bengali film industry significantly changed through his style of filmmaking and narrativizing, making him remain topical. In this short piece, I will focus on the role of the mother and the exploration of the trope of motherhood in Ghosh’s 2003 film, Shubho Mahurot (First Shot). Inspired by the Miss Marple series of mysteries by Agatha Christie and adapted from her The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, this film has been easily classified in the female ‘detective/whodunit genre’ (Film Quarterly 35). Perhaps, through the interweaving of so many relationships within the conventionally crafted genre of the thrillers, Ghosh allows for a more dynamic conversation on what is and can be atypical. Furthermore, the complicated web of motherhood, explored in Ghosh’s films, often led us to debates on the scope of inter-generational and heteropatriarchal relationships and gender identities within the regional Bengali upper caste and class milieus. Thus, Unishe April (April 19, 1994), Titli (Butterfly, 2002), Antarmahal (Views of the Inner Chamber, 2005), or Chitrangada: The Charming Wish (2012), among others, have been studied from the angle of parental and gender dynamics; however, Shubho Mahurot has never been quite discussed through the lens of gendered parental perspectives.
A widowed Rangapishi (played to perfection by Rakhi Gulzar) sniffs out murderers from the pages of a woman’s magazine reporting on the mysterious death of an actor during the inaugural day of the film shooting (hence the title). Rangapishi realizes the ability of her intuitive perception and helps solve the mystery. At the same time, her niece, a freelance investigative journalist, Mallika Sen (Nandita Das), becomes a part of the unraveling of the incident due to her presence at the time of the murder. Nonetheless, Rangapishi is the quintessential middle class, upper caste widowed aunt, a wizard in the kitchen, and an indulgent chaperone to Mallika. The actor who dies on the day of the mahurat is Kakoli Sinha (played by Kalyani Mandal). Also present on the scene are NRIs, including ex-Bengali superstar Padmini Chowdhury (Sharmila Tagore) and her husband, Sambit Roy (Sumanta Mukherjee). The other characters include the camera assistant, Sunil (Rajesh Sharma), his expecting wife, Pramila (Aparajita Adhya), and his ex-lover, a hairdresser to Kakoli named Kalpana (Moumita Gupta).
Several subterranean flows characterize Ghosh’s narrative of the thriller story. Interested in underscoring interpersonal gender relationships, the film has been variously categorized to be about “polyamory” (see Film Quarterly, 69.4 2016, 35) and as “the pursuit of freedom in women” (South Asian History and Culture, 2014, 5). Understanding Rangapishi, Padmini, Pramila, and Mallika as women with agentic possibilities, we can indeed think of how Ghosh experiments and expands heteronormative gender behaviors and often argues for a progressive if slightly subversive and articulatory space for female/queer subjectivity. I am more interested in exploring how Ghosh complicates the trope of motherhood in this film; somehow, this discussion has remained strategically missing in columns and essays on Ghosh or about the film. My intent is not only to revisit the reconfiguration of the trope but to indicate its operative valence in understanding Shubho Muharot in the genre of female-centric narratives that also celebrate affective and empathetic gendered communities and kinship relationships that women form and negotiate while simultaneously inhabiting spaces where their maternity becomes a productive force to maneuver and push narratives towards more complicated angles.
Rangapishi enacts and informs the ideal space of Bengali widowhood, albeit her maternal instincts getting reconfigured for her non-human pet children, the kittens she fiercely guards over. Rangapishi is a pet parent nurturing a pregnant cat. After her kittens are born, Rangapishi confesses securing them a baby cot, changing their diapers, and nurturing them just as a human parent would. At a frame in the film, viewers see Rangapishi show an unusually fierce streak; she viscerally prevents Padmini from throwing her poison laced sweets outside, as the kittens had already had casualties from a neighbor’s rat poison. This sudden show of passion in a muted widow with a restricted access to life and living is uncharacteristic in both widows and in the character of Rangapishi. As a Bengali, upper-caste, middle-class widow, Rangapishi leads a predictable life: pickling, cooking, snooping, and reading gossip magazines (not exactly in that order). Pictured in blanched white saris, characterizing widowhood, Rangapishi’s character occupies the conventional expectations of her circumstances as a widow while inhabiting spaces of possibilities that do not only reduce her to her situation. Mallika enjoys her cooking; Subhankar, her photographer friend, is also invited to enjoy the casual splendor in her commonplace yet lavish cuisine.
Nevertheless, narratives on understanding widowed subjectivity already remain exclusive; in literature, often simplistically analyzed to be either desirable or pious, Rangapishi’s widowhood and its portrayal are both atypical and allow her an individuality within the shape of a narrative, which could have conventionally glossed her over. Rangapishi is a lover of feline babies guarding them like a cat-mom; she even christens the actual cat-mom, Haridasi, an endearing 50s style name for kin. So, family and its quotient for Rangapishi are both expansive and indicative of her compassionate and generous ability to co-exist and sustain. Her intellectual habits, fierce possession, and affective feelings and sentiments around someone to love and care for do not get confined within specific markers. Her mothering impulses center around her fierce protection of the kittens, her mourning for the kittens lost to the rat poison, and her freedom to express her maternal feelings are regardless of species. One can argue that in the absence of human bonding and children, her kittens help her realize an affective community she develops with Haridasi, the cat. Thus, Rangapishi subverts the conventional trope of femininity by becoming the intelligent and intuitive problem solver and as the woman whose femininity and maternal instincts have expansive parameters and possibilities.
Padmini, in contrast, is a mother to a special needs’ child. She births a spastic child whom she takes to the USA after she leaves her first husband. Padmini seeks revenge for her child, a child she could not protect from deformity as its nurturer as she was infected by her co-actor while being pregnant. Padmini identifies a reasonable and strategically emplaced minor artist, Kakoli, who had the infection, and is denied both Padmini’s prominence, access, and power as a minor artist. Padmini acts as a vengeful and vigilante mother, whose power and visibility allow her the ease of access and save her from suspicion as she plots revenge. While Padmini has a fixed understanding of retributive justice for her unfulfilled motherhood, she only seeks self-actualization in that identity. To argue for agentic possibilities in Padmini as an avenging mother would be to gloss over the other aspects that also construct and are attributed to her femininity, such as her humanity; for instance, her social-political positionality and how she would have empowered minoritized spaces so the Kakolis (I am using a generic plural to denote minor artists in filmic spaces) would not be forced to report to shoots (and infect others while being sick) for their compulsion in making a living. Padmini chooses not to bring in a closure humanely but carries forth a festering mortal grudge against those she thought had damaged her experiences of motherhood. Viewed thus, Padmini does not stand in contrast or complement to Rangapishi, but as an individual whose gender-specific role, entrenched in concepts of motherhood, becomes more meaningful than her gendered humanity. At the same time, it would be simplistic to binarize these individual portrayals within the corpus of the good and the bad. Stereotypically associating NRI identities with money, easy intent to manipulate with money, and even sustaining criminality through money may not be reserved for either Padmini or Sambit. That rationale denies Padmini motif and purpose as she has to forcefully fit in the stereotype reserved for her. Similarly, the naivete of placing Rangapishi’s character as a traditional domesticated widow charting her tradition in exceptional ways would be to reduce her intentional intelligence and empathy to fit the stereotype of the gullible simpleton. In reading Ghosh critically, such juvenile disregard is, at best, tempting but never fruitful to delve into.
In exploring other mothers, we must also be mindful of mothers equally vulnerable and desperate like Padmini, but without her access, power, and her ability. A minor player in the canvass of a big-budget film, this is the hairdresser character named Kalpana. We never see Kalpana’s child in the hospital; we frequently hear about him needing a blood transfusion. Kalpana needs funds for her son’s treatment and manipulates the married Sunil (the camera assistant) to give her money by using their prior affair to damage his relationship with his expecting wife. Here, Kalpana’s choice to continue to seek and abuse Sunil show a mother’s desperation; she uses her sexuality as a weapon to (selectively) control the system of abuse (that Sunil represents), to help her son’s treatment. Ethical debates on deciding whether Kalpana is right or wrong are beyond the scope of this brief essay. Still, arguably Kalpana is not behaving in self-actualizing her maternity in a way like Padmini does. Kalpana is protecting her child’s well-being by being both expedient and unscrupulous. Her avenging is both passive-aggressive and self-destructive, and Sunil is not impacted similarly by Kalpana’s behavior as his wife, Pramila is. It is certain that Kalpana has been able to create some kind of conflict between the naivety that Pramila shows (as a migrant bride from Bihar, Pramila enacts the cultural stereotype of a Bihari bride) for her husband, Sunil. Whether or not Pramila will act defensively and how after she gives birth is a matter of debate, but surely Kalpana and Pramila have been beguiled by the same man, they do not choose to eliminate him mortally. As a mother, Kalpana acts for her child; her process of enacting and executing the ‘safety’ for her child does not culminate in a fatality. Certainly, Pramila’s actions for her unborn child are yet to be seen at the most, and she can choose not to return to Sunil from her parents’. A short scene within the film captures this departure and Pramila’s uncharacteristic questioning of Sunil’s mysterious phone calls and elusive answers (from Kalpana) in her presence.
As mothers of human children, neither Pramila nor Kalpana exhibit intentional violence on other humans pursuing retributive justice. Neither are any of them implicated in the complex matrix of scheming and manipulating evidence so they can kill. Only Padmini shows that streak. Whether Rangapishi can be evil or as expedient as Padmini or as manipulative as Kalpana is beyond the debate since she prioritizes her ability to intelligently assess details and deduce situations rather than scheme or plot for a kill. Belonging to similar socio-economic backgrounds, both mothers in the characters of Rangapishi and Padmini negotiate and redefine the foundational aspects of maternity and experiences of motherhood. Padmini’s maneuvers, lacing sweets with strychnine and taking them to Rangapishi or poisoning Kalpana with an inhaler laced with it, or devising the ‘harmless’ switching of a glass of soft drink laced with the poison, show her stealth, intelligence, and her commitment to her objective of avenging her unfulfilled maternal urges. Whereas, within a similar social-historical class-caste structure, Rangapishi exudes confident intelligence and locates maternity and motherly instincts in qualities of compassion and care for helpless and vulnerable non-human animals.
Padmini’s son, as vulnerable and as helpless, has no agency, no voice; by eliminating other humans as justification for seeking vengeance on his count, Padmini doubly impairs his existence and memory as an individual who could also be gentle, loving, and compassionate. For the absent mothers, such as Subhankar’s, who sought maternal comfort in his young aunt, Padmini, or Mallika’s mother, who calls from Jamshedpur, asking about her, the film weaves together a tapestry of care, concern, and the complex interplay of maternal relationships and revisits the ‘motherly.’ In a culture where the mother and the female goddess have been synonymously called “Maa,” Ghosh stimulates us to rethink the complexities of the secular possibilities and resonances that resist its easy juxtaposition with the sacred.
Dasgupta, Rohit K., and Tanmayee Banerjee. “Exploitation, Victimhood, and Gendered Performance in Rituparno Ghosh’s Bariwali.” Film Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 4, 2016, pp. 35–46.
Datta, Sangeeta, Kaustav Bakshi & Rohit K. Dasgupta. “The world of Rituparno Ghosh: Texts, contexts and transgressions,” South Asian History and Culture, vol. 6, no. 2, 2015, 223- 237.
Aparajita De teaches English at the University of the District of Columbia. Her writings explore contemporary films and popular culture from South Asia and the diaspora to study identity formations through intersectional parameters. She is also experimenting with the personal voice and writes nonfictional and self-autographical accounts that have been published elsewhere. Her academic profile is accessible here.
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